Not since The Wiz has a major Hollywood studio seen fit to greenlight an all-black musical; but last year, both Idlewild and Dreamgirls hit the big screen. Had the former not flopped, 2006 might have been dubbed the “Year of the Black Movie Musical”. Dreamgirls tells the rags-to-riches story of a trio of black female soul singers crossing over to the pop charts in the early ‘60s. Musicals are a tough sell these days; but if there was a musical that could succeed, this is it.
Chicago screenwriter Bill Condon, DreamWorks, and Paramount Pictures deliver a film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical with a star-studded cast: Grammy winner Beyoncé Knowles, Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx, Golden Globe winner Eddie Murphy, Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose, and newcomer Jennifer Hudson, who won an Academy Award for her breakout performance.
The Dreamettes start out as three girls – Deena Jones (Knowles) has the image, Effie White (Hudson) has the voice, and Lorrell Robinson (Rose) has the charm – who get a big break singing backup for James “Thunder” Early (Murphy) after losing a local talent competition. In their rise to success, Lorrell has an ongoing affair with Early, while Effie and manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Foxx) have a romance, though rumors abound of his side-fling with Deena. The group gets a shot at solo success as The Dreams, but tensions rise when Effie’s brother C.C. (Keith Robinson) and Curtis decide that Deena will sing lead instead of Effie. The rift leads to Effie’s dismissal and replacement, but not before she ends up pregnant with Curtis’s baby.
The Dreams go on to success as Curtis marries Deena and launches her career into superstardom, while Effie ends up a destitute, single mother struggling to survive as a lounge singer. By the end of The Dreams’ meteoric rise to fame, Deena leaves Curtis and Early dies of drug overdose, though the film ends on a positive note, with Effie claiming the rights to a hit pop single and the group reuniting for a final performance.
Dreamgirls has the goods and the glory; nattily dressed, good-looking people singing and dancing to the tune of eight Oscar nominations and box office success. But does it live up to the hype? From the costumes to the choreography and score, it’s vibrant and entertaining. What could have easily been a bawdy vaudeville imitation of the Broadway hit stands on its own as a celebration of black song and dance.
Jamie Foxx plays a convincing entertainment mogul and villain with his slick suits, coiffed hair, and heartless ways. His performance is solid, owing to his firsthand experience working with music executives. His recording career also lends itself to a great voice that, matched with his acting talent, makes Curtis’ struggles believable as portrayed through song.
Eddie Murphy is exceptional as Early – a character loosely modeled on the late James Brown – as evidenced by his Oscar nomination. This is a role he was born to play, harkening back to his Saturday Night Live days (“James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub”) and his brief recording career with a hit single (“Party All the Time”). It is great to see Eddie larger than life – without the 200-pound fat suit. His song and dance act is stellar, topped off with his uncanny embodiment of a man with nothing and everything to lose in the business. Plus, Eddie adds a refreshing hint of comedy to his portrayal, minus the shtick.
About the only thing better than Eddie is Effie, or rather, the talented Jennifer Hudson. She steals scenes with a natural acting ability, mesmerizing audiences with her rich, soulful voice. With Hudson’s rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, a star was born, and her grace in accepting her newfound fame tells us she is here to stay.
And though less hype has been made of Anika Noni Rose’s performance, her subtle delivery, sweet voice, and Broadway cred add the final touch of polish to this film, keeping it from seeming too much like a Hollywood production. The cameos by Loretta Divine (from the Broadway original), John Lithgow, and Ken Page also help in this regard.
But when you strip away the glitz and glamour, the film – most notably its writing and lead – is found wanting. Packing enough star power to light up Times Square, Foxx and Murphy alone can carry their own films. Condon does not deliver on the script.
The actors, particularly Jamie Foxx, were held back by the dialogue, with little leeway to display their potential. It often felt like they should be saying or doing something more than they were. For the novice, like Hudson, without an understanding of the restraint required by the form and genre, it was easy to outdo everybody else, particularly the lead.
Though billed as lead actress and given a Golden Globe nod, Beyoncé is carried by the film’s strong supporting cast, including Danny Glover, as Early’s manager Marty Madison. Some may be surprised to learn that she was given a screen test after she contacted producers about playing the lead. They were not sure that she could tone down her sultry stage presence and voice to play the wide-eyed, kittenish Deena. To prepare for the test, Beyoncé studied dance moves, bought vintage clothing, and hired her own hair and makeup team, delivering a solid performance.
But for all her good intentions, Beyoncé remains a singer and not an actress – particularly in her scene opposite Johns Lithgow and Krasinki, in which she comes off as pretending to be, rather than actually being, a grown woman striking out on her own. It is not for lack of effort that Beyoncé flounders – in fact, if you watch closely, you may notice how hard she is trying – but rather limited acting and life experience. Most actors draw from life’s hardships and struggles, but too many years in the limelight, from such a young age, may have permanently disconnected her from the very grit required to play a serious role. It’s not enough to imitate Diana Ross if she cannot, on a basic level, identify with her.
Hudson easily steals the show, leading one to wonder what other actresses may have been a better lead against her supporting role. Nevertheless, Beyoncé delivers her signature stunning vocals on “Listen”, one of the film’s original songs. And that may, together with the other performances, be enough to redeem her acting and the film. If you suspend your disbelief, it can even be a fun ride.
The two-disc DVD includes several special features such as a behind-the-scenes documentary, original auditions, an image gallery, Beyoncé‘s “Listen” music video, and an in-depth look at the film’s fashions by costume designer Sharen Davis. The “Building the Dream” documentary is fascinating, featuring cast and crew interviews, as well as historical background on the original Broadway production.